Propaganda in Perspective

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Perhaps the most widely accepted political idea of the past fifty years is not any particular liberal or conservative philosophy, but the universal faith in the media’s influence on politics itself.  It’s a conviction expressed everywhere from the “Fair and Balanced” conceit of Fox News in the US to the current cries of “propaganda” over the Conservative government’s anti-terror campaign.  In every instance, across ideologies, the premise is the same:  popular will can be nefariously affected by orchestrated programs of misdirection and disinformation, and the most sophisticated arguments around any problem must invoke precisely that subterfuge.  But is the Manufacturing Consent card overplayed?

Anxiety over stifled debate and gulled electorates has been a staple theme of democratic discourse for generations.  There are the classic novels of future repression Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World; there is the notoriety of public relations pioneer Edward Bernays, the “Father of Propaganda”; there is reporter A. J. Liebling’s widely quoted remark that “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”; and there are the real-life examples of master propagandists like the Nazis’ Joseph Goebbels and the apparatchiks of Stalin’s USSR.  There are also celebrated instances of active crackdown on free speech, for example the banning of books like James Joyce’s Ulysses and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and the 1925 trial of Tennessee schoolteacher John Scopes for introducing evolutionary theory in his classroom.  In all of these there was understood to be a link between what was said, or what was allowed to be said, and what “the masses” generally thought.

But the media-saturated environments of contemporary western societies, however, make that causal connection increasingly anachronistic.  Media literacy is taught in elementary schools, long-running satires like Mad magazine, Saturday Night Live and The Onion have mocked corporate and political bafflegab for decades, and a reflexive suspicion of officialdom is wired into post-Watergate journalism at all levels.  Indeed, it is dissent, rather than approval, that is the default mode of modern political conversation.  Yet partisans still smugly denounce government utterances as “Orwellian” almost seventy years after Orwell’s dystopia first appeared, and pundits and party guests still bravely pontificate on the evils of conformity and mob hysteria, pretending a heroic resistance to forces that were thoroughly vilified by the middle of the last century.

It is that self-congratulatory quality that characterizes the charges of alarmism and manipulation which now comprise regular choruses of editorials, blogs, and other commentary – the message is less political than cultural, as the supposedly freethinking few distinguish themselves from the supposedly acquiescent many.  “Propaganda” is what we call anything believed by those with whom we disagree, and “brainwashing” is how they come to believe it.  There is a difference, though, between Big Brother-like coercion of obedience and mere rhetorical persuasion, which may or may not even work (an old PR adage holds that half of all advertising budgets are wasted, but no one knows which half).   Politicians, businesses, and other institutions certainly promote their own agendas, but we have a tendency to condemn every such promotion in glib terms of liars and dupes, and then imagine that this is an original insight.  Put another way:  can every held political position be attributed solely to sound bites, photo ops, and attack ads?  Can we objectively determine which are mere emotional appeals raised in contentious disputes, and which are legitimate points?  Can every news story that seems to benefit one side therefore be dismissed by the opposition?  Can anyone identify a single citizen fooled into supporting Stephen Harper on the basis of a hyped-up terrorism panic?

Ironically, the most pervasive fear currently being stoked in our lives is the fear of fearmongering.  Conjured in numerous forums, the really dreaded bogeys are not jihadists but spin doctors and pollsters under every bed, cunningly steering Canadians toward values they could never espouse without malign intervention.  Yet this represents a cynicism far greater than that of the alleged fearmongers themselves, implying that democracy only works when the “right” views are ascendant.   However we weigh in on complex issues, we ought to finally abandon the tired, trite, and untenable assumption that the media inevitably tips the scales.